Every year, cinephiles who don’t get the privilege to attend film festivals or live in places like New York have to live vicariously through the blogs and reviews filed by critics, who whet our appetites for some of the movies we hopefully have lurking in our futures. And sometimes, the best thing about those kinds of festivals is that it introduces you to a movie you might not have otherwise seen. Such was the case with Moonlight; while I generally liked director Barry Jenkins’ debut, Medicine for Melancholy, I don’t know that seeing a follow up would have been a top priority for me. But as more and more critics I trusted came away from Moonlight raving about it and deeply moved by it (I loved Matt Singer’s tweet about it: “I’m not sure we as a society deserve a movie as empathetic and open-hearted as MOONLIGHT right now, but I’m grateful it exists.”), it became more and more a “must-see” for me.
And I’m so glad it was, because Moonlight is a beautiful, incredible piece of filmmaking – a humane, heartfelt, honest, and simple story that becomes universal in many ways while never leaving behind the story of its main character, an African-American named Chiron. It moved me immeasurably, and it served as a welcome rejoinder to the negativity and bile that have so inundated us this year.
Moonlight is the story of Chiron – or, as he’s known when we first meet him, “Little”. And that’s not a small point, because what Jenkins does is tell us about Chiron through three vignettes, each set at a different time in Chiron’s life, and with a different name that he’s either adopted or been given. The first third, set when “Little” is ten, throws us into the boy’s life as he struggles with bullies, strikes up an odd relationship with a drug dealer, and deals with a mother who’s going through struggles of her own. The middle third catches up with Chiron – now going by his own name – in high school, where he’s figuring out who he is, starting to come to terms with his own homosexuality, and dealing with the dual problems of the kids around him and his mother’s increasing unreliability. And finally, we catch up with Chiron as an adult, now proudly bearing a nickname that I don’t want to give away, and trying on a new persona, only to find himself returning to the past one last time.
Jenkins takes a beautifully low-key and naturalistic approach to the film, letting the story develop through the characters, their actions, and what they say (or hold in); this is never a movie that feels like it’s preaching, or working to get a certain point. Even the shape of each vignette is loose; there’s less a sense that these are critical moments in Chiron’s life (though in a way, some are) and more that they are samples, windows into the man he will become. It’s been compared in some ways to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and that’s not far off; to me, it came back to the famed 7-Up series, whose idea was that seeing the child at age seven could show you the adult they would become. Whatever the inspiration or reference you make, there’s something beautiful about how Jenkins and his actors bring this story to life, giving us a window into this character’s life and the people that surround him.
And yet, while this is undeniably Chiron’s story, there’s also more to unpack from Moonlight, which explores a gay black male in a way that cinema rarely has before. Even in a time where LGBT rights are expanding, there are massive cultural differences that Chiron has to deal with, and Jenkins handles them beautifully, letting them inform Chiron and shape him without ever becoming lecturing or too heavy-handed. It manages the difficult task of being both universal and specific – and that’s no small feat.
But more than any of that, what makes Moonlight work is its humanity and big-heartedness. It’s a movie that tries not to judge its characters, and lets them be themselves, and always believes that people can change for the better. It’s a movie that looks at the walls we put up and understands where they come from, but also reminds us the importance of letting people inside those walls. It’s a movie that loves its outcasts, that can find the humanity inside a drug dealer, that lets you feel the pain that can come from an unexpected phone call or the picture of a child. It is, more than anything else, a beautifully human film, one that resonates far beyond the story of this specific black gay male. And as someone who’s only one of those things, I had no problem falling in love with this film and finding myself inside of it. It’s a beautiful experience, and a film I can’t recommend enough.